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Don DeLillo: Point Omega
If we were able to get a list of all the films referenced in 20th and 21st century novels, I would think that Psycho would be high on the list. It has something that seems to speak to the deep-rooted fears of the post-World War II generation. This short novel is framed by a projection of Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho, a projection of Hitchcock’s film Psycho slowed down so that it plays over a twenty-four hour period. An anonymous viewer watches it (or some of it – he is concerned that the museum will not stay open for twenty-four hours), watches (and talks to) other visitors and muses about the film when seen in such slow motion – does the shower curtain have six rings? Why is Arbogast, the detective, seen with stab wounds on his face, when he was stabbed in the back? Film reality is not, of course, every day reality. We suspect that this anonymous viewer may well be Jim Finney, a film maker, who occupies the rest of the book and who says he has been to see this film
There are two main characters in his book. Richard Elster is in his seventies. He is a scholar of, amongst other things, language, a favourite topic of DeLillo. He has studied baby talk and is interested in the language of Dada and what we say when we talk in our sleep. More particularly, he has been asked by the US government to conceptualise – his term – the War in Iraq. We do not learn much about the project, only that he has spent two years on it and claims to have had access to all the US government’s secrets, something Jim Finney doubts. Finney is a young film-maker, who lives in New York but who is struggling. He has made only one film, a film of Jerry Lewis’ annual Labour Day telethon on behalf of the Muscular Dystrophy Association. However, he has taken films of the telethon from past years and edited out everything except the bits where Lewis is speaking, singing or acting, making for a strange film, which has had only two showings. Apart from that he has survived by doing odd jobs in the film industry. His obsession with film has meant that his wife has left him. He now wants to make a film of Elster, which will consist entirely of Elster talking about his experiences with the government project and the war. Elster is adamantly opposed to making the film with Finney and refuses several times but then suddenly agrees and invites Finney to stay with him out in the desert – Finney is vague as to exactly which desert.
Initially Finney and Elster are on their own and they talk and go out into the desert. Elster is tired of the city and modern life. His current interest is extinction. The pair talk about the film, about an essay Elster wrote on rendition in all its meaning and, as this is DeLillo and as the title shows, about the end of the world. Finney’s stay drags on as he seems happy to stay there and Elster is happy with the company. But the dynamic between the two men changes when Elster’s daughter, Jessica, arrives. We learn that her mother – Russian and estranged from Elster – had wanted her to come out to get away from a man called Dennis with whom she was having some sort of relationship, though it is never clear what exact relationship they are having. Elster dotes on his daughter (he has two sons by a previous marriage but, as Jessica tells Finney, they are not to be mentioned). She seems to live a Spartan existence. Back in New York, she lives with her mother and helps older people who need assistance. She recounts the story of couples whose marriages and memories are both slipping away. She is happy to join in with the casual living. Is Finney attracted to her? Possibly, is the answer, though it is never made clear. What is clear is that when she goes missing, Elster is devastated.
This is a short novel and, unlike his more recent ones, less clear in its plot but, like all his other novels, showing men lost in the contemporary United States, unsure of what is going on, unable to cope with the technology, trying to escape (but not succeeding). Frankly, I enjoyed the Psycho showing and the reaction of the anonymous man, presumably Finney, most but, once again, DeLillo is going to show us that we are all trapped in a loveless, advanced society where technology and language leave us guessing.
First published 2010 by Scribner